Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Sartre and Intention

In his exposition of Jean-Paul Sartre in Marxism and Form, Fredric Jameson notes the radical reinterpretation of the concept of intention that is at stake in Sartre’s later drama.  For ‘if it is useless to try to determine the meaning of an act by introspection, in these later plays we proceed in reverse, on the assumption that whatever was done, whatever objective results the act in question had, must have been in some sense willed or desired by the actor himself’.  How might this apply to Morris’s own later works?

In The Well at the World’s End Ralph chooses to go swimming and leaves the Lady of Abundance on her own in the Chamber of Love, which gives the Knight of the Sun the opportunity to steal up upon her and kill her.  So must we then assume, on Sartrean principles, that Ralph somehow desired that outcome, however stricken by grief he might on the surface appear to be afterwards?  Or again, in The Water of the Wondrous Isles Birdalone refuses the injunction to remain safely in the Castle of the Quest and heads off to explore the Black Valley of the Grey Wethers.  The three returning questers must therefore set off to track her down, in the course of which the Golden Knight Baudoin is killed by the evil Red Knight.  So did Birdalone then in some sense desire this to happen?

We should note that there are characters within the late romances who themselves take something like this stance towards intention, as when Roger had predicted to Ralph of the Lady of Abundance that he ‘would take her luck from her and make it thine’, which is not in the least, needless to say, Ralph’s conscious aim.  So to adopt a Sartrean view of intention would, I think, productively complicate our response to these late works, getting beneath the lofty chivalric gestures of which they are so full and opening up darker dimensions of meaning.

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